Museum  May 14, 2019  Chandra Noyes

What is Camp? The Met Tries to Define the Ineffable

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, BFA.com/Zach Hilty

Camp: Notes on Fashion, Gallery View, Failed Seriousness

In this summer’s sweeping fashion exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, a notoriously difficult to pin-down concept is on display. Camp: Notes on Fashion, on view through September 8, is an exuberant, colorful exhibition that simultaneously addresses and artfully dodges the question, “What is ‘Camp’?”

Featuring around 250 objects from the 17th century to present day, Camp offers nearly as many definitions of the word. The Met defers primarily to Susan Sontag for their definition, whose 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” lends its name and structure to the exhibition. In her famous piece, which brought her to the forefront of American intellectualism and made Andy Warhol a fan, Sontag traces the history of the aesthetic, citing many examples in her list of 58 criteria.

courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, BFA.com/Zach Hilty

Camp: Notes on Fashion, Gallery View, Accessories Case 

Despite Sontag’s effusiveness, Camp remains a moving and changing entity, in part because it is so subjective, and because, as she says, “to talk about camp is to betray it.” Camp is largely defined by what it is not. Sontag describes it as: “a seriousness that fails;” apolitical; an emphasis on style rather than content; artifice; “either completely naive or else wholly conscious;” and playful. Like pornography, Camp is hard to define, but we know it when we see it. “Notes on ‘Camp’” ends with, “The ultimate Camp statement: it's good because it's awful.”

courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, BFA.com/Zach Hilty

Camp: Notes on Fashion, Gallery View, Part 2 

The objects on display at the Met, are, of course, gorgeous, and not awful. The exhibition begins in Versailles, in the royal courts of Louis XIV and Louis XV, the embodiment of Baroque extravagance. The exhibition also focuses on the Victorian dandy (Sontag’s essay is dedicated to Oscar Wilde), and the emergence of Camp as a queer aesthetic. Incorporating fine art and fashion, these galleries provide background for the exhibition halls displaying how modern and contemporary fashion has explored Camp.

Ensemble, Jeremy Scott (American, born 1975) for House of Moschino (Italian, founded 1983), spring/summer 2018; Courtesy of Moschino. 
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2019

Ensemble, Jeremy Scott (American, born 1975) for House of Moschino (Italian, founded 1983), spring/summer 2018; Courtesy of Moschino. 

Ensemble, Bertrand Guyon (French, born 1965) and headpiece by Stephen Jones (British, born 1957) for House of Schiaparelli
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2019

Ensemble, Bertrand Guyon (French, born 1965) and headpiece by Stephen Jones (British, born 1957) for House of Schiaparelli (French, founded 1927), fall/winter 2018–19 haute couture; Courtesy of Schiaparelli. 

Dress, Jeremy Scott (American, born 1975) for House of Moschino (Italian, founded 1983), spring/summer 2017; Courtesy of Moschino. 
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2019

Dress, Jeremy Scott (American, born 1975) for House of Moschino (Italian, founded 1983), spring/summer 2017; Courtesy of Moschino. 

Ensemble, Alessandro Michele (Italian, born 1972) for Gucci (Italian, founded 1921), fall/winter 2016–17; Courtesy of Gucci Historical Archive. 
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2018

Ensemble, Alessandro Michele (Italian, born 1972) for Gucci (Italian, founded 1921), fall/winter 2016–17; Courtesy of Gucci Historical Archive. 

Ensemble, Virgil Abloh (American, born 1980) for Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh (Italian, founded 2013), pre-fall 2018; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Virgil Abloh c/o OffWhite™, 2018 (2018.585a–e). 
courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2018

Ensemble, Virgil Abloh (American, born 1980) for Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh (Italian, founded 2013), pre-fall 2018; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Virgil Abloh c/o OffWhite™, 2018 (2018.585a–e). 

Wedding Ensemble, Alejandro Gómez Palomo (Spanish, born 1992) for Palomo Spain (Spanish, founded 2015), spring/summer 2018; Courtesy of Palomo Spain. 
courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2019

Wedding Ensemble, Alejandro Gómez Palomo (Spanish, born 1992) for Palomo Spain (Spanish, founded 2015), spring/summer 2018; Courtesy of Palomo Spain. 

The Met Gala, which took place on May 6, is a particularly apt setting for this theme. The fact that some guests were reportedly unsure of what ‘Camp’ means seems fitting, as the Met Gala is known for its extravagance and theatricality, making it fertile ground for the over-the-topness that Camp requires. From the impracticality of the attire to grand entrances, big personalities, and bigger price tags, for those of us sitting at home in jeans, the alleged seriousness of the Gala is all Camp.

Both humorous and serious in its satire, Camp blurs the line between good and bad tastes, high and low art. In such an esteemed setting as the Met, it can be hard to remember that part of Camp is mocking tastemakers. If you can keep this in mind, Camp: Notes on Fashion lets us laugh at and with some of fashion's greatest hits and misses. 

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is Managing Editor for Art & Object.

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